Ben Affleck as Batman and the collapse of the movie industry
The internet imploded last Friday as news broke that Ben Affleck will play Batman in Man of Steel 2, a Superman vs Batman combo that adds to the recent glut of superheroes on the big screen. If online reaction was anything to go by, even intelligent, everyday people were suddenly consumed by the question: ‘why, dear God, why!?’.
But the fact that Warner Bros is again rebooting the Batman cowl points to something much more concerning than Ben Affleck’s gainful employment: Hollywood’s business model is collapsing and it suggests we’ll be stuck with yet more reboots and remakes for a long time to come.
The biz is changing
The biggest threat to studios is that less and less people are paying to watch films these days, both in the cinema and at home. In the 1940s, 80 per cent of Americans went to the cinema once a week. Now that figure barely scrapes 5 per cent, and with the DVD market collapsing—the home entertainment market raked in 18.7 billion dollars last year, compared to 21.8 Billion in 2004—Hollywood is changing the way it does business in order to survive.
The opening weekend
Because less people are seeing films a bigger chunk of a movie’s budget is being dedicated to marketing. We’re talking campaigns of at least 100 million dollars worth here, but the figure can run higher and rival the actual cost of making the movie. Now they’re spending such huge sums flogging their films, studios need to maximise the effectiveness of this advertising spend and so are changing the way films are distributed.
Movies used to be released to screens gradually, over the course of a year in different markets. That’s been turned on its head. Now the strategy is to open on as many screens as possible in an effort to make money quickly—before the next expensive blockbuster comes along. It makes sense when you consider that around 80 percent of a film’s advertising spend occurs in the week before the movie’s release. Having spent all that money flogging their film, they need to make sure it’s as widely available as possible. A big budget movie will succeed or fail based on its first week as revenue drops of by about 40 per cent after then.
Because films no longer spend 12 months being shown on cinema screens—they’ll be on DVD within four months of release—studios are targeting the section of the market that still goes to the movies regularly; those who spend their weekends at shopping malls with cinemaplexes: teenagers. In the US, 12-24 year olds are the most regular movie goers.
And that explains, partly, the popularity of superhero films like Batman and Hollywood’s continuing fascination with action films and comic book adaptions: they’re intended to lure weekend mall rats who prefer things that explode over complex dialogue. But while we’re blaming people, lets not forget to single out another group: foreigners.
Blaming foreign people for our problems
For a movie to make a profit it has to do well on the international market. The international box has grown by 32 per cent in the last four years, compared to only 12 per cent in North America. In fact the international box office now makes up two thirds of a movies takings, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Nuanced drama, witty dialogue and complex stories don’t translate especially well across borders. Things that blow up do.
Then there’s China. Between 2011-12 the Chinese box office for Hollywood films grew a staggering 36 per cent according to the same stats. It’s already the second biggest market in the world for movies, forecast to take over the US by 2020. Superhero films and action films do well there and Hollywood has been falling over itself to accommodate the Chinese market.
Iron Man 3 for instance, included 4 minutes of extra footage shot with Chinese actors and local product placements in a direct effort to win the Chinese box office; The Red Dawn remake digitally altered the enemy from an invading Chinese force to an invading North Korean force; Looper’s setting was switched from Paris to Shanghai; Transformer 4 will have four roles filled by the winners of a Chinese reality TV show.
Not Another Effing superhero film!
It’s getting riskier for studios, who are spending more money on fewer films. It’s known as tent pole strategy: the idea that a few 100 million dollar movies can prop up the profits of an entire studio. It’s a huge gamble.
In the face of this risk, studios now prefer a film has pre-awareness; a pre- sold identity with an existing fan-base. Video games, book, comics: all have established characters, stories and audiences for the studio to exploit. Better still, they can me remade again and again with spinoffs, prequels and reboots. Franchises like Batman, X-Men, the Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars give studios a continued return on their investment. A quick look at movies slated for a 2015 release confirms this trend: Pirates of the Caribbean 5; Jurassic Park IV; Independence Day 2; Star Wars Episode VII; Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Part 2; Inferno – the Da Vinci Code threequel.
Franchises also open up another profit stream for studios. With box-office takings only accounting for 20 per cent of blockbuster’s profits, franchises offer more opportunities to license material for merchandise, as well as streaming, paid downloads and DVD sales. The DVD market is collapsing, but remains strong for franchises. People are more willing to buy the box set of Lord of the Rings or Batman than a one-off film.
So no, it’s not Ben Affleck’s fault that there will be yet another Batman onscreen though he probably will guarantee it's awful. But then we're all talking about it. Economics are forcing superhero remakes, actions flicks and comic book adaptions, and the bad news is things are probably getting worse. This year has ben labelled the summer of doom in the US—box office takings are down a staggering 19 per cent on last year. Whether this marks a bottoming out leading to a change in tactics or a guarantee that Hollywood will continue to chase the lowest common denominator remains to be seen.